Monday, February 22, 2010

Windows Phone 7: It's About Time

A Windows Mobile OS You Might Actually Want

Over the past 7 or so years, Microsoft has carefully dragged the Windows Mobile brand in the mud. Of course, it started out as Pocket PC, but some of us would much rather forget those days. In any case, WinMo has had a lot of issues over the years and got pummeled by Blackberry and Apple in market share because Microsoft simply wasn't being competitive enough in innovation. As such, rumors of a Zune Phone have been around since the Zune hit the market and created a small fan base. While those rumors never quite materialized, out of their ashes has emerged Windows Phone 7, which is more or less a re-branding of Windows Mobile.

I recommend watching the videos that Engadget has posted from the announcement last week because seeing is really believing here - this UI is slick. It very much feels inspired by the same design principles that inspired the Zune, but it's still set apart a bit from the Zune UI in that it clearly looks more geared towards a mobile PC experience. It's visually dominated by clean typography and screens that seem to be horizontally very long to encourage side-to-side navigation. It also aims to plug you into the Internet more easily and automagically kind of like the live widgets familiar to Android users.

While there's no Flash support, it's gotten at least as much good press as the iPad has gotten bad press. I like Gizmodo's wording of the UI as being "function-centric". It's not centered around screens of apps, just a simple interface for exactly what you care about. Despite all this buzz though, I don't know if Microsoft will succeed here. Palm made a big splash around this time last year with webOS and Palm is arguable a more respected name in mobile phones than Microsoft. They released the Pre in the summer and they're still struggling despite critical acclaim for the Pre and Pixi. Microsoft's timeline is this winter, so do they stand a chance in a world where 9 months can mean 1-3 major mobile OS upgrades for Android, webOS, and the iPhone?

Well, I'll admit that they have an ace in the hole: Xbox Live. The way to market phones nowadays tends to be around a specific feature that it does really well. It may do other things decently well but being the biggest player in one specific feature can really help move merchandise. The strategy with Blackberry was for enterprise users and heavy texters and for Palm with webOS it was multi-tasking. I'm sure there will be little independent games on Windows Phone 7 like on other phones, but the real killer feature here would be cross-platform gaming, which is exactly what Microsoft is proposing. Being able to play a casual game on your Xbox 360 from Xbox Live Arcade against someone on their phone is an awesome idea. I can already picture the ad of a dad on a business trip playing Bomberman on his phone from LAX against his son who's at home on their Xbox 360. Past just casual games like this though would be a concept pioneered by Sega with the Dreamcast, which was way ahead of its time. Remember those VMU thingies? Where you could play little mini-games on them? What if you could play a Mass Effect 2 mini-game on your phone that integrated with the storyline from your Xbox 360 Mass Effect 2 saved game? If I had an Xbox 360, I would most definitely buy a Windows Phone 7 for an extended experience like that. Sony has tried to bring together the PS3 with the PSP and had limited success, but it requires people to buy a gaming device whereas everyone needs a cell phone these days.

While we're still in hype mode right now with Windows Phone 7 and the videos show how unpolished it is in terms of speed and bugginess, it's a very cool concept. There's no guarantee that it'll be enough to bail out Windows Mobile, but after seeing all I've seen I really hope it ends up standing a chance.

In Other Mobile News...

Hey, it was Mobile World Congress week so last week was all cell phone news.

Nokia and Intel have teamed up to create MeeGo, a new Linux-based mobile OS designed to work on all mobile devices, not just cell phones, and is basically a re-imagining of Intel's Moblin OS. I think they basically took a good look at the iPhone and Android and decided that they were in big trouble. Given that this is all we know, it's not promising. Nokia doesn't have a great track record for clean UIs, but Intel still has the power to popularize this OS at least among netbooks and tablets and it is going to be an open source OS. The official site says that the development platform will be C++, which may make it more attractive for people used to writing Objective C for the iPhone, but C++ is definitely not as popular a language as it once was.

The HTC has named its successor to the Nexus One: Desire. It's an Android 2.1 device with the same Snapdragon processor and sports a beautiful AMOLED multi-touch screen. I can't get enough of AMOLED - it's too awesome. The main difference from the Nexus one is that the trackball is gone in favor of the Sense UI, which is HTC's UI built on top of Android that was introduced with the HTC Hero. So nothing terrible new here, but it is probably the next big Android phone.

Adobe announced that Air is slated to be available on Android later this year (I think in the first half of the year), and they stated their grand plan of developers writing applications on the Flash platform to work on all phones that don't have "iPhone" in their name. As much as Apple doesn't want to admit it, Flash is big. HTML 5 isn't here yet and everyone already uses Flash for mobile video and a lot of casual online games. I think Flash may be in trouble in 2012 when HTML 5 has hopefully caught on, but for right now it's an interesting proposition that developers can put mobile video widgets on their site via Flash that will work on a lot of non-iPhone phones. It's not going to kill Apple, but it would certainly be a thorn in its side if Flash ends up being implemented well (read: stable and power-efficient). Plus, developers could just develop some applications to just be for the iPhone OS and then for Air and that could end up covering an enormous majority of the market. Like any good conference, this is all just pie in the sky talk for right now. It won't be long before we see what happens, especially with the Pre expected to get Flash support in an OS update before the end of the week.

Why You Should be Scared of Apple

This post simply wouldn't be complete without covering this article from Cracked. It grew to be quite popular. Despite all the great things that Apple has done for technology in the past 30 years, they're riddled with problems that people like to pretend don't exist. It doesn't make you a bad person if you have an iPhone just because Apple does a lot of bad stuff, but it's worth knowing the things they do behind closed doors, like run campaigns of fear against their own employees and take extreme measures to combat leaks. When an employee of an Apple contractor commits suicide because he's being tortured over a prototype he accidentally lost, that's a really bad sign.

The real issue with Apple is the amount of control they continue to wield over their products. It's hard to cheer for someone who makes massive innovations in a technology only to cripple it with restrictions that don't make sense. The app store on the iPhone is a prime example of that, but it's not much better that they use updates for programs like iTunes to sneak other unrelated software on users' computers. I think stories like this are important to know because I believe corporations should be held accountable not only by their shareholders but by their customers. Ultimately, Apple is only around because of the people who buy their products, and their lack of regard for what customers really care about kind of sucks. It'd just be nice to see that change because they clearly have a lot of talent in Cupertino and they can really pump out some impressive hardware.

Yahoo Going the Way of Alta Vista

PC World posted a fun little editorial posing the question of whether or not Yahoo is becoming another Alta Vista. I definitely had a chuckle when I read the title because I remember trying Alta Vista back in the days when people thought Yahoo was the Internet. They're really hitting heavy stagnation when it comes to innovation and a home page that's attractive at all, and it's unfortunate to see them fall like this but they're totally being undercut by Bing. Even though Bing isn't a new player under the hood, it's very telling how quickly Microsoft was able to usurp mindshare from Yahoo.

The Rest

And now the stories I have very little to say about.

Flash 10.1 will support porn mode - I mean private browsing. You have to admit that it's kind of funny how quickly the whole "private browsing" feature has caught on.

40% of US households do not have broadband, and 38% of those people aren't interested in getting it. That's really terrible. The industry and the government clearly aren't doing a good enough job helping the Internet fit in people's lives.

Google Gears is dying in favor of HTML 5. I think everyone saw that coming as soon as they heard about HTML 5.

Maximum PC has a really good roundup of useful web applications. They're not all winners, but most of them truly are really good.

Lastly, this image very aptly sums up the truth about how annoying DVDs have become nowadays. Do the studios not watch their own DVDs? How does all that crap not irritate them?

Have a great last week of February, everyone! Oh February 2010, we hardly knew thee.


Jose A. said...

Windows Mobile 7 definitely looks interesting, but as you suggested, I'm not sure there's enough room for Windows to compete anymore. It really seems like the market isn't going to tolerate more than 3 or 4 major mobile OS. I'm predicting an Apple, Android and RIM world. I'm not sure how big Palm's market share has grown.

As for Apple, I think you and I clearly fall on different sides of the divide, and I'm going to guess you fall into the category of people who fervently cling to their PCs while quietly resenting the smug hipsterness of Apple junkies. lol. I think the Apple/Microsoft culture divide would make for a fascinating sociological/anthropological study. I was a PC user up until entering law school, but I've been blown away by how well my Macbook and Time Capsule work.

Yes, their way of doing things can seem draconian for tech industry standards, but I think blaming them for a Chinese workers suicide goes a bit too far. I'd consider it far more a symptom of chinese business culture (and it happens more often than you might think) than Apple's fault.

Here's an interesting article I recently found:

I can totally see the Apple/Android divide paralleling the Microsoft/Apple clash with computers. Some people will choose Apple for its seamlessness and user experience, despite its limitations, whereas many others will prefer Android for its greater freedom and hardware options, even if it doesn't run as smoothly or as sexy. Of course, if someone can match the Apple experience with Android's openness, they'll clearly dominate, but that remains to be seen.

Elton said...

I think Apple and Android will definitely be there, but not sure about RIM. RIM hasn't done anything interesting in a while, and as Android and Microsoft and Palm inch ahead, RIM may find themselves in the dust. I have high hopes for Palm, but their future is really cloudy. They just had bad timing. No one seems to agree with me, but if they were a year earlier they would be killing it. They have a good developer community going, too, just not enough people buying the hardware.

I don't fall on either side of the Microsoft/Apple line because I don't think that line makes sense. There are plenty of people who do, but I buy the product that I think does the job best. MacBooks are awesome products, but I cannot justify spending that much money on a computer when Asus and Toshiba make excellent laptops for much cheaper. I tried OS X for a while but I'm too used to Windows now. I learned that it's not any better than Windows, it's just different. Everything people told me I'd stay with Mac for, I've since been using on Windows 7 either out of the box or with free software. Apple doesn't have a single product though that makes me want to ditch what I have. I'm very happy with my Pre for my phone, happy with my clix for my mp3 player, and I've already explained the laptop situation. Apple TV just doesn't make sense - especially with TiVo and Roku and the like.

Microsoft has done plenty of bad stuff, and they always get burned for it. It doesn't make sense that Apple does bad stuff and no one seems to care. If people don't notice then Apple will continue their crazy practices.

Apple isn't solely responsible for that guy's death, definitely, but there's no question they had undue pressure on that supplier for secrecy. An irresponsible amount of pressure. And their policies with their own employees aren't that exciting, either. If Amazon told me they were going to search my phone randomly, I'd probably quit.

Is Apple really that seamless? If you live in their walled garden, it is. I don't mean that in a mean way - Apple creates a walled garden. It's a fact. They never put in any effort into making iTunes a good product for Windows. But, of course, the user interface is always solid. It's often simplistic, but that's where their strength lies. A lot of people on the Nexus One or Droid would disagree about sexiness, so don't say that in front of them :) I have friends who I think would make love to Android if they could. If BSG has taught us anything, they will be able to someday. (I don't really watch BSG, but I wish I did)

Oh, and I don't think putting together Apple with Android is going to cut it at this point. It's prohibitively difficult at this point to get the kind of smartphone market share the iPhone has now. And I think we're also entering a world where no one is going to have the massive majority that iPhone does. Instead, it'll be chipped at more and more by Android and possible one or two others until it's more fair, though the iPhone has such a leg up that it will probably stay ahead for the foreseeable future.

The Pre has a lot of the look-and-feel of the iPhone down, and it's a totally open platform, and yet it's not doing very well. It has lots of critical praise, but that's just enough. The Pre is just too late to the game.

Jose A. said...

RIM's definitely been disappointing in terms of multimedia features and such, but I have a feeling they'll be maintaining a pretty solid lock on businessy people - particularly with their security and e-mail capabilities. If they could just fix their crappy browser, which I've heard they've been working on lately. The firm I'm going to be interning at in Austin is probably 1/4th iPhone 3/4ths Blackberry, but that's pretty rare. I don't think you'd find any iPhones at Houston firms.

Palm's issue may have been timing, but also just lack of cash to spend on marketing (and perhaps on less creepy commercials) and clout to get carriers to really push their phones. It would've taken a miracle to really get a decent amount of people to move to Sprint, and Verizon's Android push seems to be eclipsing Palm move to their network.

Microsoft definitely got their act together with Windows 7, in the exact same way that Google's really pushed on Apple with the Nexus One, but as you suggested, timing is a big issue. A lot of people can match Apple's work, but only with a 6-month or year lag, after which Apple seems to edge back up again. And there are huge first-mover advantages of course, particularly on smartphones.

Apple is certainly a walled garden. But that's really the key policy question – and it's discussed a lot in my Tech Law seminar at the Berkman Center – does having somewhat of a walled garden lead to a better user experience, at least for casual, non-expert users?

Nobody else has created the kind of "ecosystem" that Apple is building with iPods, iPhones and now the iPad combined with the App store. Sure there are a lot of people who object to proprietary formats and Apple's control over apps, but the "seamlessness" and reliability that it creates for users who just want something to work really well, even if it is somewhat crippled, so far has yet to be matched.

I've experienced how Apple's heavy control over hardware and software integration leads to a smoother user experience on my Macbook vs. PCs with Windows, but I can also see how heavy tech users would find Mac too limited. I think Apple's genius has been in letting other company's battle it out for users with very personalized hardware and software demands, while it's honed on the (pretty sizable) market of people who are a bit less utilitarian and find a certain aesthetic appeal in an extremely well integrated but walled-off platform.

Elton said...

Meant to reply to your comment:

I think RIM is definitely not going away any time soon, but it's lacking mindshare. I think you need more than the enterprise market to grow. They'll hang in there, but they're not going to satisfy the stockholders unless they fix the problems their phones have.

I think the pre is definitely a combination of marketing strategy and timing. Also, Verizon would've been a better launch partner. But, as a Sprint user, I'm glad they chose Sprint =D Some people think it's the screen size, and I think that's silly. Not every freaking phone has to have like a 5 inch screen =P The iPhone form factor is sexy, but it doesn't feel great in your pocket. The Pre does. If you don't need a virtual keyboard, the Pre screen is what you need. People have different screen size needs, I think it's silly to say that a small screen kills a phone in the water.

I don't think a walled garden is the worst thing in the world. It's frustrating for the hardcore geeks, but that's why things like Linux exist :) If you complicitly buy Mac hardware understanding that, then it's fine. I'm not someone willing to do that, but it lends itself to a lot of simplicity that hurts Windows because it wants to be the OS for everyone else. That's what their more recent ad campaigns focused in on. It used to be that Apple's walled garden was too small for anyone to want to play in it, but hats off to them for completely turning that around over the past 10 years. It's something that should be in tech history books 10 or 20 years from now.

Mac's strategy is to sell you what they think you should want. I say that because it will feet perfectly for some people, but definitely not everyone. And those people are ok with it because they trust the Apple brand. For those people, that's fine and it's what's helped Apple grow so much. But it means you're going to turn off a lot of geeks and control freaks who want the perfect machine. It's just about picking a market and sticking to that market.